Has Kate Atkinson lost the plot?

When a novel is described as a work of rare depth and texture, a bravura modern novel of extraordinary power, wit and empathy” I expect something ultra special. 

transcriptionImagine my disappointment then, having read said book, that it had neither depth nor power. Yes it was amusing in part but nowhere close to being extraordinarily witty. As for being a ‘bravura’ performance, I rather think the person who wrote that blurb should have consulted a dictionary before committing words to paper. Bravura means “great technical skill and brilliance shown in a performance or activity”; something that is brilliant and dazzling. 

As much as I have appreciated Kate Atkinson’s ability in past years to tell a story compellingly, her latest novel Transcription is can in no way be described as brilliant or dazzling. In fact it’s well below the standard she showed in her debut novel Behind the Scenes at the Museum and in the four bestselling novels featuring former detective Jackson Brodie.

Transcription focuses on the shady world of British Intelligence during World War 2. Juliet Armstrong is an unsophisticated eighteen-year-old girl recruited into the Secret Service at the start of the war.  She’s despatched to an obscure department of MI5 which has set up a sting operation in a block of flats in order to monitor and trap British Fascist sympathisers. Juliet’s job is to transcribe the secretly recorded conversations those sympathisers have with Godfrey Toby, a British spymaster masquerading as a Gestapo agent.

Ten years later, Juliet is working in children’s programmes for the BBC when she spots Godfrey Toby. He rebuffs her, denying their past acquaintance. Ever the inquisitive one, Juliet begins to investigate the people that once populated her life. She discovers people that she believed long dead or sent to some far flung corner of the world or shot, returning to haunt her.

For a novel concerned with spies and espionage, it’s not surprising that its themes are deception and hidden identities.  Julia’s identity is unclear even to herself at times:

And then there was Juliet Armstrong, of course, who some days seemed like the most fictitious of them all, despite being the ‘real’ Juliet. But then what constituted real? Wasn’t everything, even this life itself, just a game of deception?

In fact almost everyone in this novel is leading a double life. They’re all engaged in an elaborate game of make believe just as much as the actors and the sound engineers Julia relies upon for her history programmes at the BBC.

It’s hard to take it all seriously because the parallel Atkinson draws between the techniques of artifice used in the world of intelligence and those deployed in the world of the arts, borders too much on farce.  The situations are highly improbable – at one point Julia shimmies down a drainpipe to avoid discovery,  while another scene has her dispose of an inconvenient body. And, with the exception of Julia, the characters are not fully fleshed out to any extent.

The few mannerisms ascribed to her co-conspirators in the Secret Service don’t differentiate them sufficiently so it was easy to forget who they were, and why they were in the novel. Maybe this was deliberate and we were meant to understand that spooks were shadowy figures whose success relied upon their ability to meld into new personas and backgrounds. Lack of personality might have been a professional pre-requisite but for a reader it made the novel dull.

Transcription is a novel which had a lot of potential. But it was never fulfilled.  Part of the problem I think was the overall tone. The content matter was serious yet the text so often was anything but serious.  It made for an uneasy mix. Were we meant to laugh or despair at the ridiculous way in which intelligence was managed in a time of heightened tension? I really have no idea because all the time I was reading I felt as if there was some vital element in the book that I was simply not getting.

This was a doubly disappointing experience because Atkinson is an author whose work I used to love. I didn’t enjoy her novel Life after Life and wasn’t interested in its successor A God In Ruins. I was hoping Transcription would mark a return to the quality of the past. But it was not to be.  I haven’t given up on Atkinson yet however – I’m hoping the new  Jackson Brodie novel which is due out in a few weeks, will prove a more enjoyable experience.



About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on May 24, 2019, in Book Reviews, British authors and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 29 Comments.

  1. Interesting to see your response to this. I listened to an condensed version on R4’s Book at Bedtime last year, and while I enjoyed it well enough (especially at the beginning), it left me feeling unsatisfied by the end. I’ve been wondering if something had got lost in the process of editing, but now I’m not so sure, particularly given your disappointment with the novel in full.

    • I don’t think your feeling of being unsatisfied was really due to the abridged version – it was the feeling all of us in the book club had after reading the full version

  2. Interesting, I’m not that interested in her work per se but I’m a transcriber so that aspect appealed – but it sounds like most of this is set after she’s finished being a transcriber!

    • I didn’t really explain the structure of the book very well Liz. There are three time frames: the main ones are when she is working as a transcriber and then in the 1950s at the BBC. But the beginning and end are set many years from then…

  3. An interesting review. Like you, I loved Behind the Scenes… and I’ve enjoyed the Brodie novels. Somehow I’ve avoided her other titles, until recently. I’ve been wondering about Transcription. I heard an interview with Atkinson on the radio when the novel was published and liked the idea. But I might not look too hard, now.

    • In our book club discussion more than one member questioned whether, had this been written by a less well known author, it would have seen the light of day. Or if it did, how much would have been rewritten

  4. I agree with all your sentiments about this novel. I was very disappointed, especially after – unlike you – I found ‘Life after Life’ and ‘A God in Ruins’ really satisfying. I had hoped that the realism with which Atkinson managed to imbue those two snapshots of WW2 would come through in this novel too.

    To be fair, I am not much good with espionage stories, and get frustrated when I don’t know which side someone is on – though this is rather the point of spy fiction! All the same, I feel that Atkinson’s foray into this genre was not a success.

    • Half the problem was that it wasn’t clear what kind of a book she was writing. Was it an espionage story (I’m thinking no), was it a farce? Was it historical fiction?

  5. To the extent that I actually remember what I read, I find Atkinson quite variable. A year or two ago I thought When Will there be Good News the best book I had read in ages. Others not so much.

    • It does seem that she is trying new approaches – sometimes of course experiments don’t work but I’ll give her credit for trying. In this case I just think she wasn’t clear what the experiment was meant to be about

  6. Well I’ll have to respectfully disagree with you because I really enjoyed Transcription, but now I’m wondering about Jackson Brodie-perhaps i would love these books too? I haven’t read any of them, but I understand there is quite a bit of anticipation around their release…

  7. Judy Krueger

    OK, good. I don’t need to read this one!

  8. Well, I’ve never felt the urge to read Atkinson and tbh I don’t think I’ll bother now. Doesn’t sound like it’s coherent, to say the least….

  9. Agree it doesn’t merit any of the rave reviews! I liked some aspects but I found the tone problematic too. Halfway through I struggled to keep my attention on it.

  10. So disappointing when we look forward to a book and then it falls short of our expectations.

  11. Interesting Karen. I loved Behind the Scenes and Life After Life but this one sounds a bit confused.

  12. I have this tbr, my book group picked it at my suggestion. I have seen a couple of lukewarm reviews so I am a bit nervous. The premise and setting sound like something I would like. To be honest, I probably expect decent stories from Kate Atkinson rather than exceptional writing. I’m looking forward to the new Jackson Brodie, though will probably wait for the paperback.

  13. Well, you know what I thought about Transcription: it was a book that didn’t know what sort of novel it wanted to be. It was a pleasant enough way to spend an afternoon reading but definitely nothing more. Such a disappointment.

  14. I’ve got Emotionally Weird on my TBR – and I’ve been wondering whether to cull it or not. What do you think?

  15. inthemistandrain

    I, too, thank you for your review, I thought I was the only person underwhelmed by Transcription. I wonder if there became in the reviewing of it in the past couple of years a touch of the Emperor’s new clothes. I admit that I’m not a fan of Kate Atkinson’s writing (apart from the excellent BTSATM) which I think she’s never bettered or equalled. I found Life After (yet another!) Life to be extremely tedious. I haven’t tried her Jackson, perhaps I should.

  16. Thank you for a very real, very honest book review! You don’t tiptoe around and I appreciate that because I also found Transcription by Kate Atkinson to be a tedious and highly overrated novel, and I was so disappointed with it. Here’s to Jackson Brodie!

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